Italy imposes mask mandate outside and in as virus rebounds

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Faithful and nuns wear face masks to stop the spread of COVID-19, at the Vatican, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. Italy's health minister said that the government is examining a proposal to make masks mandatory outdoors as the country enters a difficult phase of living alongside COVID-19 with the number of infections growing steadily for the last nine weeks. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME – Italy imposed a nationwide outdoor mask mandate Wednesday with fines of up to 1,000 euros ($1,163) for violators, as the European country where COVID-19 first hit hard scrambles to keep rebounding infections from spiraling out of control.

The government passed the decree even though Italy’s overall per capita infection rate is among the lowest in Europe. But Premier Giuseppe Conte warned that a steady, nine-week rise in infections nationwide demanded new preventive measures to stave off economically-devastating closures and shutdowns.

“We have to be more rigorous because we want to avoid at all cost more restrictive measures for production and social activities," Conte said.

The decree was passed on the same day that Italy added 3,678 new infections and 31 deaths to its official coronavirus toll, the highest increase in new cases since the peak of the outbreak in April. Both hard-hit Lombardy and southern Campania added more than 500 cases each.

Italy has over 36,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, the second-highest number in Europe after Britain.

Even though the World Health Organization doesn’t specifically recommend masks outdoors for the general population, the trend has taken off in Italy, particularly as new clusters have been identified in southern regions that largely escaped the first wave of infection.

The new mask mandate was contained in a government decree extending the state of emergency until Jan. 31. It requires residents to have masks on them at all times outdoors, and wear them unless they can guarantee that they can remain completely isolated from anyone other than family. That effectively makes them obligatory outdoors in all urban and semi-urban settings, with exemptions for eating in restaurants and bars.

In addition, masks must now be worn indoors everywhere except private homes, but even at home, Conte urged Italians to keep their distances with relatives, given most new infections are occurring within families.